Has IT process standardization gone too far?

'Artistic' processes might be the answer

The move to standardize processes has gone overboard, say M. Eric Johnson and Joseph M. Hall in this month's Harvard Business Review. Some processes, they argue, are more akin to art than science and need to be treated that way. Johnson, a professor of operations management and director of the Center for Digital Strategies at Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business, told Kathleen Melymuka why artistic processes are essential in IT and how to know when you need one.

Why do you say that process standardization has gone too far?

CIOs and B-school faculty have been promoting process standardization as the road to the promised land. And there's a lot that's good about that. But we began to notice that there were cases where standardization went awry because we standardized a process that required more variability and flexibility than we were allowing. By standardizing, we ended up in a worse place. That whole idea was the genesis of this article: When and how does process standardization go awry? We've all seen cases where stuff got standardized that shouldn't have and it stifled innovation.

What is an artistic process, and when might one be needed in the IT environment?

When we say "artistic process," that language seems a little flaky, especially for CIOs. We define them by the way they operate. That is, an artistic process has to operate with lots of variability in inputs to the process, how it operates and in the outputs -- and that variability is viewed positively by the customer. That's critical. If customers value variability in output, then standardizing that process will shackle competitive advantage.

When IT puts its eyes on a customer-facing system and starts thinking of standardizing that system, it should first ask the question, "Is this process one where customers value variability?"

Can you give me an example?

Maybe the way you operate in France is different from the way you operate in Italy or the US. If you try to roll out a standard process, you may be destroying potential value for the firm.

How can an IT manager identify which processes should be science and which should be art?

It's really all about whether the customer values the variability. As a CIO, you need to think about end customers and also customers in the organization, and how both are valuing what you're doing. If the business requires more flexibility, then there is some value in variability and you have to be careful about process standardization. But standardization often makes tremendous sense in back-end processes.

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